A fresh wave of anti-austerity strikes has hit Greece as its leaders struggled to agree further spending cuts for the coming two years – without which the country will lose its vital rescue loans.
State hospital doctors, teachers and local authority employees walked off the job to protest over planned salary and funding cuts.
Hundreds of local authority workers, beating drums and carrying banners reading “No to the financial collapse of local authorities” and “We will not pay for the crisis, we did not create it,” marched to the Finance Ministry in central Athens. Among them were several mayors, including the capital’s Giorgos Kaminis.
Hospital doctors and teachers from state nurseries to secondary schools held a separate demonstration.
Greece has depended since May 2010 on international rescue loans, granted by its European partners and the International Monetary Fund, in return for a deeply unpopular austerity programme.
Conservative prime minister Antonis Samaras is fighting an uphill struggle on two fronts. As well as getting the support of his centre-left coalition partners, he has to get the approval of debt inspectors.
Until the measures are approved by the EU, IMF and European Central Bank, the so-called troika, Greece will not get its next desperately-needed loan instalment.
That money will be used to recapitalise the hard-hit banking system and pay off debts to contractors and suppliers, including pharmacists who for more than a week have refused to give credit to the country’s main healthcare fund. As a result, nine million Greeks face paying the full cost of their medicine, which is normally heavily subsidised.
So far, Mr Samaras has not managed to get his coalition partners to sign off on the proposed measures. He will hold a new meeting with the heads of the Socialist PASOK and Democratic Left parties on Wednesday evening.
The cutbacks are expected to include further cuts in pensions and public sector salaries. A Democratic Left statement said the troika is also seeking an increase in the retirement age, from 65 to 67, and public sector sackings. The party said it rejects those ideas, as well as proposed reductions in disability benefits, public transport ticket increases and across-the-board pension cuts.
PASOK has also ruled out several of the proposals, which have to be approved in Parliament.
The new cuts have deeply angered unions, which have held a string of strikes and often violent protests over the past two and a half years of Greece’s acute financial crisis, that have seen a deepening recession and record high unemployment.
Unions say they are planning a new general strike in the near future, while the austerity program has triggered protests this month by police, firefighters and judges.